The Influence of the Irish

Robert Strawbridge
Robert Strawbridge

Last time we met two men – Phillip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm — who would become leaders in what would become the United Brethren in Christ, itself a forerunner of the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) with which Methodism merged in 1967 to form The United Methodist Church. That word “united” comes from Evangelical United Brethren – not because we are, united that is.

The absence of any official commissioning by John Wesley makes the actual beginnings of Methodism in America a bit tricky to specify. This may be the reason for a long-standing and ongoing-bragging-rights contest between New York and Baltimore Methodists concerning who came first. As we make our pilgrimage this fall, you might find yourself confused over the multiple claims of various buildings we’ll see to being “the oldest” in Methodism. This is the reason.

What we do know is the beginnings of Methodism trace to Barbara Heck and Philip Embury in New York City and Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge in Frederick County, Maryland in the mid-1760s. As we explore this part of our story, keep in mind the increasingly brittle political climate between the colonies and Britain. The controversial Stamp Act was passed in 1765. The Boston Massacre took place in 1770, and the famous “Tea Party” in December, 1773. All this is happening in the formative stages of our story of Methodism. And politics will soon enter our story in a big way.

Note how both the New York and the Maryland ventures involved important female as well as male initiatives. And all of these people were laity, not clergy, who will not enter our story until later. Both developments also drew in black as well as white converts, both expressed the aspiration of immigrants for the order and community construction that Pietism provided, and both involved Irish immigrants. Maybe St. Patrick’s Day ought to be a Feast Day in United Methodism!

Let’s meet Robert Strawbridge first, a very interesting character. He is an important Methodist ancestor to know about, especially as he was something of a missionary renegade.

Robert Strawbridge had come under the influence of Methodism in his native Ireland before emigrating to America. As a local preacher, he began preaching and established, with the help of his wife, Elizabeth, a Methodist class meeting in their home in Sam’s Creek, Maryland. Subsequently, they erected there a log meeting house. This is the first time we’ve used the phrase “class meeting.” This is such an important concept for the development of Methodism, both in England and in America, that I will devote the next blog post to describing it.

Elizabeth gained the first convert, John Evans, who became the class leader. (See the Class Leaders training guide from 1812 in the “Historical Documents” section in the menu bar above.) Robert Strawbridge itinerated (i.e., traveled around) – an important word in “Methodist-speak” — in Maryland, both Eastern and Western Shores, in Virginia, and into Pennsylvania. He established class meetings that became the nucleus of later societies – yet another important word in Methodist-speak, but which derives from the Pietist interest in creating small communities — in Baltimore, Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and Leesburg, VA.

Strawbridge, though not ordained, began to baptize – oops, a lay person doing sacramental ministry; that’s going to get noticed! — as early as 1762/63 and eventually to offer the Lord’s Supper (oops, I did it again), celebrating out of a sense of mission to his new flock and their needs. He issued no plea to Wesley to send preachers, to provide for ordinations, or for Mr. Wesley to spread his wing over Strawbridge’s efforts. He was fine with doing things himself! Initially cooperative with Wesley’s early missionaries, Strawbridge eventually resisted their efforts to bring him and his circles into conformity, thus showing something of the Irish spirit that he and others built into the foundations of Methodism and setting the stage for what would later become a long-running battle for a seat at the table of influence between laity and clergy.

Next time, we will come back to meet Barbara Heck and Philip Embury and a new hero of early Methodism, Captain Thomas Webb. Though laity, their initiatives led to the founding of John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, the church where we will worship on our first Sunday on the tour. After we meet them, I’ll tell you a little more about the class meeting, which many considered the crown jewel of Methodism.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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